A Stone Rejected | Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ 39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes? 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. (CEB)

A Stone Rejected

One of the keys to understanding any story is the setting. We know that Star Wars took place, “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, took place in Middle Earth. In fact, the more we know about the story’s setting, the better we understand what’s taking place and why. That’s why books often include maps.

At least the last ten novels I’ve read included maps of the world in which the stories take place. One book, The Martian, even included a map of Mars. It’s helpful to see what the landscape of the story looks like, whether the world is real or imagined. Setting also includes things like social, religious, political, and historical context. These are all integral to understanding the story.

It’s the same with any text of Scripture. The setting of the book places it in a specific context that can help us understand what’s being said. And, speaking of context, most Scripture passages are related to what comes before and after. So, knowing the context of the verses within a book also helps us to understand the message.

The setting of Jesus’ parable is Jerusalem after the triumphal entry where he was riding on a donkey and hailed as the Son of David. The whole city was stirred up over this incident (Mt. 21:10). Jesus went into the Temple where he pushed over the tables used for currency exchange, and threw out the people who were buying and selling things there. It was an act that went against what those in charge of the Temple complex allowed. With these actions, Jesus told everyone that the religious leaders were wrong.

The chief priests and legal experts immediately confronted Jesus and asked him where he got his authority to do what he was doing. And Jesus had the gall to tell the chief priests and legal experts that tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John the Baptist’s message and changed their hearts and lives were entering the kingdom of heaven before them.

It’s safe to say that contention was in the air.

It’s important to note that the parables of Jesus which answer the challenge to his authority by the chief priests and legal experts are directed toward the leadership, not to the Jewish people as a whole. Sadly, we have to admit that some Christians have interpreted this as polemic against all Jews, suggesting this shows God’s rejection of the Jewish people. But those who have done this are wrong. That’s called antisemitism, and it’s wrong. Jesus was a Jew; he wasn’t anti-himself. The line Jesus draws is within Judaism, not between Jews and Christians.

The parable of the vineyard is a reflection on the text from Isaiah which we read earlier (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jewish thought identified the vineyard with the Temple. So, Jesus’ parable ties in with Isaiah’s message of Israel rejecting the prophets. I think it’s helpful for us to look past Isaiah 5:7, because it gives us a better idea of what the prophets were preaching against.

Isaiah says, “The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land” (Isa. 5:7-8 CEB).

From Amos to Isaiah, one of the primary messages of the prophets was the responsibility of the leaders and wealthy (and the wealthy were almost always the leaders) to take care of the poor. They preached against exploitation. And that exploitation, in a largely agrarian economy, included crowding others out by gaining so much of the land that others didn’t have any.

So, the parable tells us about a vineyard that God planted, and the tenants to whom he leased the land. When the harvest was due, he sent his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants mistreated the servants. In a sense, they elbowed the servants out. They made no room. They held on for themselves what wasn’t theirs to keep. Another group of servants comes and suffer the same mistreatment. Then, the landowner sent his son, thinking the tenants would surely respect his own son and give him what belonged to him.

Instead, the tenants killed the son, again, thinking they would keep for themselves what didn’t belong to them. So Jesus asks the chief priests and legal experts what they think the landowner will do when he comes. Their response is that he’ll destroy the wicked tenants and lend the vineyard out to tenants who’ll give him his fruit when it’s due. In judging the wicked tenants this way, the chief priests and legal experts pronounced judgment upon themselves.

Jesus uses allegory to get his message across in a way that disarms his opponents. It’s the same thing the Prophet Nathan did to David when he asked the king to judge a situation about a wealthy man who stole a poor man’s beloved lamb. When David pronounced his judgment that the rich man had to pay the lamb back seven-fold, Nathan told David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan was really talking about how David conspired to murder Uriah and take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own. David pronounced judgment upon himself. Then, Nathan revealed David’s sin.

After telling the parable and letting the chief priests and legal experts judge themselves, Jesus interprets his own parable using Scripture from Psalm 118. Verse 42 quotes verses 22-23 of the Psalm, “The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight!” (CEB). In fact, part of the same Psalm, verse 26, was shouted by the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem when they said, “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9 CEB).

Psalm 118 is the Psalm of Praise that’s sung at Passover to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. So, when Jesus interprets his own parable with parts of Psalm 118, there are layers of meaning: praise for God’s deliverance, recalling Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and hints of Jesus’ own coming rejection and violent death which is our own redemption.

There’s another scriptural reference to the stone, and Jesus brings it into play here, too. Isaiah 8:13-15 says, “It is the LORD of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe. God will become a sanctuary—but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel; a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem. Many of them will stumble and fall, and be broken, snared, and captured,” (CEB).

These verses from Isaiah refer to the coming invasion of Israel and Judah by the more powerful Assyrian Empire to the north. Isaiah spoke of the invasion as judgment on the Kingdom of Israel for its social injustices when God expected justice and righteousness, but saw bloodshed and heard cries of distress. Isaiah preached a similar message as his predecessor, Amos, who accused the wealthy of selling “the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6 CEB).

So, the parable of the vineyard’s wicked tenants is bookended by passages about judgment from two sections of Isaiah. And that judgment is against the wealthy and powerful of Israel who didn’t know justice or mercy. Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders kicks into high gear with his turning over tables in the Temple and healing of the blind and lame who came into the Temple to find Jesus there. The chief priests and elders demanded to know with what authority Jesus did these things. Jesus demanded to know why the chief priests and legal experts weren’t paying attention.

The words of the prophets had been spoken long ago, but the leaders hadn’t learned from the past. The suffering were still suffering with no one to show them mercy. Those who lived each day in poverty had no justice and no way to improve their lot because the greed of wealth had ensnared the rich. The outcast, the abused, the poor, the vulnerable: they continued to suffer. And the Temple system that the wealthy men of the day controlled worked in such a way that the poor couldn’t afford to buy the required offerings.

That’s why Jesus tells the chief priests and legal experts that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. The rich and powerful might think they’re blessed because of their wealth, but the poor and weak are the ones whom God favors. The reason being, that the chief priests and legal experts had failed to produce the fruits of the kingdom by failing to do justice and show mercy. That message of justice and mercy is what almost all the prophets proclaimed.

So, how do we apply this to ourselves? We listen to Jesus. We remember that we’re called to ministry. We do what we can to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to set us free from bondage and brokenness. We have a responsibility to produce the fruits of the kingdom in our lives. When we do, Jesus becomes our sanctuary instead of a stone for stumbling.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Advertisements

Do What Is Right | Proper 21

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

1 The LORD’s word came to me: 2 What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: “When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer”? 3 As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! 4 All lives are mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child belong to me. Only the one who sins will die.

25 But you say, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Listen, house of Israel, is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up? 26 When those who do the right thing turn from their responsible ways and act maliciously, they will die because of it. For their malicious acts they will die. 27 And when the wicked turn from their wicked deeds and act justly and responsibly, they will preserve their lives. 28 When they become alarmed and turn away from all their sins, they will surely live; they won’t die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up, house of Israel? 30 Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, house of Israel. This is what the LORD God says. Turn, turn away from all your sins. Don’t let them be sinful obstacles for you. 31 Abandon all of your repeated sins. Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live! (CEB)

Do What Is Right

Life would be a lot simpler if the Bible were a book that spoke with one united voice. But it doesn’t. It’s a collection of books that speaks with many voices, and those voices can contradict and disagree with each other at times. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned Facebook conversation. Something gets said, and not all the parties who decide to post their thoughts are in agreement.

For example, Isaiah says, “…they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools,” (Isa. 2:4 CEB). But Joel reverses that sentiment and says, “Beat the iron tips of your plows into swords and your pruning tools into spears,” (Joel 3:10 CEB). Then, Micah (4:3) reverses Joel’s thought by repeating Isaiah.

In Ezekiel, we’re told that the people were complaining about their state by quoting a proverb that highlighted the unfairness of God’s ways because they believed God punished children for the sins of their parents. In fact, they were living that very nightmare in exile. The prophets before them had warned the earlier generations of what might come through their continued disobedience, and then it all became reality. Previous generations had not been faithful to God’s covenant, and now the current generation was suffering when they hadn’t done anything wrong.

And they were right, I suppose, to a point. They were right that they hadn’t been the ones to break the covenant that caused the exile. And, they were right about the idea that God might punish children for the sins of their parents. It’s even written in Scripture that this kind of thing happens.

Exodus 20:5-6 says, “…I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments,” (CEB). Numbers 14:18 says, “’The LORD is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet he doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs,’” (CEB). Deuteronomy 5:9-10 repeats the Exodus text verbatim.

So, this proverb about children suffering for what their parents had done came from a very Scriptural idea. And we can empathize with them about the unfairness of such a thing. Modern examples of children suffering for the sins of their parents happen all the time. If I were to go to jail, my children would suffer. They’d feel embarrassed, probably disgraced. Other kids in the schools might make fun of them if they found out. They might have to move or make any number of major adjustments to their lives due to loss of family income and housing. It would be a mess.

So, we can understand their thought process. We can see why the children of exile in Babylon would have quoted this proverb, and maybe looked at their parents’ and grandparents’ and previous generations with some degree of annoyance, disdain, and blame for their situation. They saw themselves as innocent sufferers for crimes they didn’t commit, and came to the conclusion that God’s ways are unfair.

There is no question that the present and future are always tied to the past. They’re in conversation with the past, and they result from the past. The actions of previous generations affect the situation of future generations. That’s one of the reasons why I care about social justice, racial and gender equality, and environmental issues. I want my children (and potential further generations from them) to thrive, to be able to live in peace and prosperity and not lack for anything. I want to leave the world in a better state than when I came into it, not worse.

I think the reason Ezekiel speaks out against this proverb, despite it’s apparent accuracy and Biblical root, is that many of those who were children of the exile—the generation casting blame on previous generations and calling God’s ways unfair—were not doing much more than casting blame and shrugging their shoulders. While a healthy understanding of the past is a good thing, it can lead us to have an unhealthy understanding of our present. It’s unhealthy to throw up our arms and tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about whatever we’re facing because people messed everything up years ago.

That’s kind of like saying we shouldn’t bother to recycle now because the environment’s already a disaster. Or, suggesting that we shouldn’t bother working for racial justice and reconciliation because slavery and Jim Crow already happened.

The exiled Jews still had a choice in their own behavior that wasn’t tied to how the previous generations acted. After making it clear that all lives belong to God, whether it’s the parent or the child, Ezekiel tells us that only the person who sins will die. Now, first, this isn’t physical death. It’s the kind of death that occurs when we separate ourselves from God who is the source of life itself. What should any of us expect if we cut ourselves off from the source of life? Death seems like an obvious result.

Ezekiel reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions and inactions. It’s almost too bad that the lectionary cuts off verses 5-24, because they develop this idea by giving us the example of a righteous parent who acts justly and responsibly, doesn’t give their attention to idols, doesn’t sleep with other people’s spouses, doesn’t cheat anyone, fulfills their obligations, doesn’t rob people, but gives food to the hungry and clothes to the naked. The parent does everything right. They settle things fairly and follow God’s regulations, laws, and they act faithfully. Ezekiel says that parent will live.

But, suppose that parent has a child who is a little hellion and the child does everything wrong: the opposite of what their parent did. God asks the question, should this child live? The answer is no, and the child’s blood will be on their own head.

Then, say that hellion child had a child who, like their grandparents, did everything right. God says the grandchild won’t die for their parent’s guilt. The grandchild will live.

So, in an apparent reversal of Exodus 20:5-6 and the like, Ezekiel 18:20 says, “Only the one who sins will die. A child won’t bear a parent’s guilt, and a parent won’t bear a child’s guilt. Those who do right will be declared innocent, and the wicked will be declared guilty,” (CEB).

Then, Ezekiel gets into repentance. If the wicked turn away from their sin and do what’s right, they’ll live. None of their sins will be held against them. Similarly, if those who were doing right engage in the same detestable practices that the wicked committed, they’ll die.

God says, “Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, House of Israel,” (Ezekiel 18:30a CEB). I think most of us would agree that that seems pretty fair. If we’re all culpable for our own sins and no one else’s, that’s pretty fair. Now, when most people hear this part, they focus in on the word judgment. That’s what we’re all scared of, right? Being judged for the way we’ve lived because, heck, nary a one of us are perfect. Some of us have done some pretty terrible things, so the idea of judgment feels intimidating.

What we tend to gloss over when we can only focus on judgment, is the merciful grace of God splattered all over the pages here. Yes, God will judge us according to our ways, but we have the opportunity to repent. We can make changes in our lives now that free us from the past, not only the past of previous generations, but our own previous bad behavior and horrible choices. God is rooting for us in this whole thing called life. We’re told, “I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32 CEB).

The people complained that God’s ways weren’t fair. If you think about it, that’s absolutely ludicrous. Who would want to be treated fairly by God? Fair is measure-for-measure, tit-for-tat, good-for-good, evil-for-evil, all in equal amounts. We give and we get. I don’t want to be treated fairly by God because I’m just not that good of a person.

God knew that this pitiful human race that God created needed to be treated so incredibly unfairly that it could never be considered right. That’s why God sent us Jesus. God changed the game entirely with the incarnation, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only does God offer us repentance, God came down from heaven to be with us. God tipped the scales so unfairly in our direction that no one can be untouched by God’s love and grace. God went far beyond fairness. Instead God showed us how completely in love with each one of us God is.

When God tells us to do what is right, it’s fairly simple. We’ve heard it before. We love God. We love others. And through our successes and failures at doing those two things, we get to rely on the utter unfairness of a God who rigged the whole blasted game in our favor.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Into the Vineyard | Proper 20

Matthew 20:1-16

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’

13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” (CEB)

Into the Vineyard

In this parable, Jesus overturns the normal values of culture. He takes fairness, as our culture would see it, and throws it out the window. At the end of chapter nineteen Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be radically different than they would expect or perceive. This parable continues that theme.

First, I suppose it would be helpful to explain what this parable is not. This parable isn’t about economics. It’s not a lesson on how employers should treat their employees. No company could survive if they paid their employees in this way. Besides, any company that paid employees hired in December the same amount as those who work a full twelve months would soon have trouble finding anybody in the office from January to November. In the same way, any teacher who gave an A to a student who registered for the class on the last day would find themselves in the midst of a revolt on the part of the students who showed up for class and handed in the required assignments all through the semester. The parable is intentionally impractical so that it forces us to think in a new way about ourselves, other people, and God.

The parable it is to be interpreted as a sort of poetic allegory. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1 CEB). We’re to understand this householder, in a symbolic way, as God. And we are to understand ourselves, in a symbolic way, as the laborers in the vineyard.

The landowner in this parable seems more concerned about the workers than he does about his crop or profit. We’d expect the story to say that the landowner hired some harvesters early in the day, but when he found out that the crop was bigger than he expected, and that the job was bigger than the first workers could handle, he went out to round up enough workers to get the job done. But this is not what happened in this parable. In this case the landowner went out and hired more workers simply because the unutilized labor force was standing around waiting to be hired. The landowner is motivated by the needs of the people. If anyone is out of work, the landowner will invite them to come work in his vineyard, not necessarily because he needs them, but because they need him and the work he is able to provide so that they, in turn, can provide for their own families.

At no point does the landowner say to the workers standing in the marketplace, Why are you standing around? Go get a job you lazy slackers! Nor does the landowner say to the workers, Well, I wish I could use you but I already have a full crew. No, every time the landowner goes out into the marketplace and finds workers standing idle he invites them to come work in his vineyard. This landowner hires even those persons whom all other employers have neglected, rejected, ignored, or in any other way refused to offer a job. These are the people who are like the kids in a gym class that are always picks last to be on the kickball team. These are those whom the world rejects, yet they are beloved by God.

If we’re to understand ourselves symbolically as the laborers in the vineyard, this parable forces us to rethink how we relate to God. We can’t help but notice that the different groups of workers are operating under different agreements with the landowner. The first group of workers made an agreement with the landowner to work for a denarius, which at that time was the normal daily wage for a worker. This is a clear contractual agreement. The second, third, and fourth groups agreed to work for “whatever is right,” (Matthew 20:4) thus placing their trust completely in the landowner to give them a fair wage for their time of work. They had no specific agreement with the landowner.

The fifth group was not even told that they would receive what was fair. They had no agreement whatsoever with the landowner. They were simply told, “You also go into the vineyard” (Matthew 20:7 CEB). At the end of the day, the landowner says, “Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first” (Matt. 20:8 CEB). Each labor gets a denarius, a full day’s wage for their work. Everyone gets enough to live on.

There is, possibly, a dramatic contrast between the first hour workers and the last hour workers. The last hour workers were desperate and needy, and they knew it. They had waited all day for a call to work and gotten none. They would have stood idle and useless all day had it not been for the benevolence of the landowner. Those who, in joy and in trust, responded to the command of the landowner to go into the vineyard are given sheer grace: a full day’s wage, which for them is the sustenance of life. It’s what they can use to feed their families.

The first hour workers are also given grace, although they don’t readily recognize it. They’re the contract workers. Maybe they’re bargainers who think that life works according to deals and negotiations. Maybe they try to strike bargains with God, counting up good deeds, checking their timecards, and measuring out their devotion with cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. They might see themselves as entitled in that they deserve what is rightfully theirs. If we interpret the parable this way, the contrast between these workers could hardly be more dramatic. The first crew, the bargainers, are working for a denarius. The latecomers are working for the landowner, for God, and both get what they are working for.

As I mentioned before, a denarius was the typical daily wage for a worker. But this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. What is a daily wage in the kingdom of heaven? In the previous chapter, Peter said to the Lord, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?” (Matthew 19:27 CEB). Jesus replied to the disciples, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:28-30 CEB).

One way to interpret this parable is that, at the end of the day, everyone who has labored in God’s vineyard, everyone who has served in the work of the kingdom—even those last-second converts—will be given a wage that will give them life.

Now, to be clear, this is a parable. It’s not direct language, and I doubt Jesus is suggesting that we can earn our way to heaven. In fact, the way the parable is pieced together, it seems clear that what is given is more closely related to God’s generosity than to what we have earned. At the same time, every time the Scriptures mention judgment, they say we’ll be judged according to what we have done, what we have failed to do, or what we have said.

The fact that the last-minute workers get the same wage as those who worked all day shows us the true poverty of those who started their work first. Everybody in the parable is offered the same wealth of the kingdom. God gives everyone a daily wage so extravagant that no one could ever spend it all. A deluge of grace descends upon everyone; torrents of joy and blessing fall everywhere. It’s inundating, overwhelming, super-abounding. And these pitiful first hour workers stand drenched in God’s mercy with an ocean of peace running down their faces, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more.

The reply of the landowner to one of the workers at the end of this parable speaks to the point. The landowner says, “Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15 CEB).

The literal translation of this last sentence from Greek is, “Or is your eye evil because I’m good?” The language recalls the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be!” (Matt. 6:22-23 CEB). In other words, when the landowner says to the first hour workers, “Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” he kind of saying, “Does my generosity expose the darkness of your soul?

What we see of God in the world colors how we live in it and how we interact with others. If we see only scarcity, partiality, unfairness, and selfishness, we might start to act that way, too. If we see God’s extravagance, impartiality, fairness, and generosity, we’ll start to imitate those things.

The message of this parable is that God is generous. God’s generosity is overflowing, and surges mercifully over the landscape of human life. We may need to consider whether we are serving for the reward or because we love God. Either way God is merciful. But those who rely upon grace see grace more clearly. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and see that all is grace. All is providence. And everything is from God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Live to the Lord | Proper 19

Romans 14:1-12

1 Welcome the person who is weak in faith– but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. 2 One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. 9 This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11 Because it is written,

As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (CEB)

Live to the Lord

The thing Paul discusses here is kind of a difficult idea. Honestly, for some of us, these words are a tough pill to swallow. A modern-day comparison of what Paul’s talking about might be our current political landscape. I’m only 41, so I don’t remember a time when our nation was so politically divided between liberals and conservatives. Maybe the ‘60s were similar, but I didn’t experience that. And the ‘60s didn’t have social media. Some of the political viciousness, especially on Facebook and Twitter, is intense. I’ve seen a lot of the meanness. One guy even attacked my wife in a thread. Yeah. Not cool. I was attempting to engage in a serious discussion, and he was dismissive from his first post. He knew he was right, so why have a conversation about it? To his mind, all the rest of us needed to do was subscribe to his perfect viewpoint. When we didn’t, we were clearly wrong.

There are issues about which we are incredibly passionate. Sometimes, we’re so passionate about them that we can’t help but label those who oppose our position as confused, unlearned, or outright stupid. When it comes to matters of faith, we can be even more serious, and stubborn, about our positions. Sometimes, our disagreement with others over certain issues and lead us to think it would be better if we broke fellowship with them. Honestly, division and schism is one of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants have proved themselves to be really great at one thing: breaking fellowship with each other. That’s one reason why there are over 41,000 Protestant denominations. Forty-one thousand different groups of people have said, We can’t be in fellowship with you because you don’t think like us.

While Methodism has a history of reversing that process—the 1939 merger of the three major Methodist denominations in the United States, for example—we still have our own sad histories of splintering apart. Over the past several years, there have been talks within United Methodism about breaking apart over the issue of homosexuality. Those discussions are alive and well in both camps. I’ve seen online postings touting the need for “an amicable separation.”

These people clearly aren’t listening to Paul. Whatever the controversial issue might be, whether it’s abortion, homosexuality, evolutionism, creationism, ordination of women, authority of the Bible, interpretation of the Scriptures, or how often we should have Holy Communion; if you have picked a side and you think that issue is divisive enough that you would be willing to divide the church so we don’t have to include those on the other side of the aisle… If we want to use those disagreements as an excuse to exclude others from our fellowship… Paul is speaking to you.

I think he’s probably speaking to those who aren’t so immovably staunch, too, but I suspect that most of us have at least one or two issues that just make us want to shake the salt out of people who disagree.

By the way, if you didn’t grin just a little bit when I read the first two verses of this text, then you missed the irony. As Paul is telling us not to judge others, he describes those with whom he disagrees as “weak in faith.” “Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:1-2 CEB).

Now, I would love for this to mean that I am not a weak person. Not long ago, I fried up some breaded, bacon-wrapped chicken. And, since there was a little milk in that breading, you could almost say that I ate three animals in one meal. But Paul isn’t saying this to build me up at the expense of vegetarians. What he is doing is addressing the kinds of doctrinal issues that were so serious to some of the Christians in Rome that they saw them as a viable reason to cut off their fellowship with Christians who believed differently.

What Paul does not do is tell us to change our view or stop discussing the matter with others. Paul’s a guy who seemed to enjoy a good argument, and he could get as passionately caught up in the things he held to be right or true as anyone. What matters to him is the spirit in which we argue when we disagree, not how right we actually are. We always think we’re right, but we don’t always love and respect each other the way we ought. Paul’s concern is the grace we extend to each other. A life of grace is lived beyond judgment. It’s the kind of life that loves enemies, and those who harass us, and those who persecute us. We’re allowed to disagree and have disagreements about matters. But how we think and act toward those with whom we bitterly disagree is what matters to Paul. And, our spirit for and toward those with whom we disagree ought to matter to us.

Some of our disagreements can be so strong, in fact, that we start to see our opponents as not only our enemies, but as enemies of God. We’ve all heard the phrase, hate the sin, love the sinner, but what usually happens is we end up hating both. Maybe it’s not outright hatred, but it’s very easy for the other to become the personification of the particular sin or evil to which we’re opposed. It’s easy for us to take note of other people’s sin while conveniently glossing over our own.

We can get a kind of zealous energy from putting our self or our cause in righteous opposition to a contrary idea or value. It’s subversively alluring, and it tends to intensify the hostility we feel toward others over whatever issue we disagree. We draw our lines in the sand, build our castle walls, and think if these people aren’t with us, then they’re against us, and they’re against God!

One of the many problems that arise when we become, in our own minds, the righteous opposition is that we can cease to view our opponents as fellow children of God. We can begin to see them as enemies and us as righteous. And we forget that we, too, are sinners in need of God’s grace; that we, too, will be judged; that by judging others as condemned, we are placing ourselves in mortal danger of God judging us as in the wrong.

There’s a reason why Jesus taught, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5 CEB).

Whatever the dispute might be (and, for Paul, it seemed to be dietary practices and observance of holy days) who are we to pass judgment? We might well see ourselves as the “strong” Christians, and those who think differently than us as the “weak” Christians. But, since God welcomes everyone, who are we mere mortals to disparage, despise, show contempt for, or reject one another? Since God is the one who judges, who are we to judge one another? If Jesus Christ can be lord of the living and the dead, if his death and resurrection broke the power of sin and redeemed the whole world, if every knee will bow and every tongue will give praise to God, then we can be confident that Jesus is the lord of all people; even those Christians whom we think are on the wrong or “weak” side of certain issues.

If we fail to love others—really love them and welcome them and choose to continue our fellowship with them despite our differences of opinion—then whatever our stance might be, we are in danger of losing ourselves in our commitment, not to Christ, but to our own opinions. We can make every sacrifice to the point that we feel like we’re being martyred for our cause by the crusade on the other side, but when we can no longer love people on the other side, our own “right” actions are not righteous; defense of our “Christian” ideals is not Christian, and our attempts to build up the community of faith according to our designs are not labors of love.

Without love, even right action can be perverted. In another place, Paul wrote: “If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 CEB). Love’s characteristic is that it puts up with all things, and endures all things (c.f. 1Cor. 13:7). If ours doesn’t, then we probably aren’t loving as we ought, and we probably aren’t as loving as we thought.

Not even something as divisive as politics should be able to break our fellowship with each other. Personally, I voted for the United Methodist candidate. I’ve had fervid conversations in my office with members of our church who voted for the guy who won. We don’t agree. We aren’t going to agree. It’s 100% unlikely that either of us will convince the other to take the opposite position. We disagree, but we love and respect each other. We talk together often. We still see each other as beloved children of God. There’s no issue—political, theological, or otherwise—that will make us think the other isn’t worthy of our fellowship. Unity of faith doesn’t mean we all believe exactly the same way and hold exactly the same opinions. Unity of faith means that, despite our differences, we love each other as Christ loves us.

So, what will we do when we disagree over theological issues and Biblical interpretation: things that might seem insurmountable and irreconcilable? Well, Paul’s instruction is that we welcome those we oppose, not so we can argue about our different opinions, but so we can show genuine love to each other as God’s children.

We have many opinions but we have one Lord, and each of us is accountable to God. “God has accepted them,” Paul tells us. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand)” (Romans 14:3-4 CEB). If God can uphold and make even those other people stand in the judgement, we can have hope that we’ll stand, too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Owing Love | Proper 18

Romans 13:8-14

8 Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires. (CEB)

Owing Love

Before I was ordained, I was asked the historical questions of John Wesley as outlined in the Book of Discipline. One of those questions was, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?”

Now, when I answered that question, I had just completed my master’s degree at Duke, which followed immediately upon the completion of my bachelor’s degree at Findlay. I had also gotten married two years prior, so Joy and I not only joined hands in marriage but also joined school loans. We had a combined debt that was fairly substantial. I don’t remember the exact number, but our debt from education and auto loans was more than $50,000. I was starting a job at $27,500 as an associate pastor. Was I in debt so as to be embarrassed? Well, I remember chuckling at the question. I think I may have even answered “Yes” under my breath.

We owed a lot of money back then. So, when Paul tells us not to be in debt to anyone except for the obligation to love each other, if financial debt was what Paul meant, then I don’t think I would have passed his scrutiny. But I don’t think that’s quite what Paul means. While the verb owe or debt comes across in English as a financial thing, the word used in Greek has the connotation of meaning any kind of obligation. In fact, we know Paul isn’t telling us to not take on any debt as an absolute because in verse 7, he tells us to pay everyone what we owe them.

What Paul means by “Don’t be in debt to anyone except for the obligation to love each other” is that we all owe everyone love. Love is, in fact, the primary characteristic of the Christian. Last week, we examined Paul’s discussion of genuine love—love without hypocrisy—in Romans 12. Now, Paul speaks about love as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the law.”

Now, among some Christians, an idea has taken root that the law is bad or irrelevant. But the laws handed down by Moses became the community’s rule. Every community has rules and laws. Community would be chaotic without laws, which are developed and defined as an attempt to protect those within the community. There’s a reason why you can’t test the upper speed capabilities of your car on 4th Street. It would be unsafe for the rest of the public. The same idea is behind those laws that say you can’t assault, abuse, steal, murder, or walk down the street drunk as a skunk. Law exists for the sake of the community, so law is a good thing that is very relevant.

At the same time, law can become laws. Look at our own civil law as an example. The United States Constitution has 4,543 words including the signatures. Add in the 27 amendments, and you have 7,591 words. The U.S. Code, which contains the codified statutes of the United States, has 53 volumes. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, which contains the administrative rules and regulations, has 50 volumes. On top of all that, there are volumes upon volumes of decisions, precedents, and interpretations of those laws.

So, if you can obey and adhere to the codified laws and regulations of those 103 volumes in the U.S. Code and C.F.R. plus all the interpretations and court decisions, which contain millions upon millions of words, then you know you’re obeying the 7,591 words of the U.S. Constitution. Sounds simple enough, right? That’s not even mentioning state law and regulation, and local ordinance. Laws can multiply almost endlessly. It’s a wonder we’re not all on jail for breaking some obscure law we didn’t even know existed.

Paul realized that law has its limits. Law can tell us how we’re not allowed to treat other people or their property, but law cannot tell us that we ought to act kindly toward others. Government can’t legislate anyone’s attitude or renew anyone’s mind.  And there are things that are lawful but not loving. Law can be passed or rescinded to harm people who lack a certain legal status. Law can make it incredibly difficult for people who want to change their legal status to actually do so. Law has limits.

Love does not. What law can never accomplish, love can. There’s a reason why Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:2 CEB). God’s will is not always what human law or regulation says. Laws that harm are not God’s will, no matter how we might try to frame, justify, or defend them. Ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, for example, is perfectly legal, but it is not loving. No matter our political leanings or party affiliation, it is legal but cannot be construed, in any way, as loving. These are people who came here seeking an escape from things most of us can’t properly imagine: poverty, corruption, and the violence of gangs and drug rings. Is it loving to send any person back to that in a home they no longer know? Love for others transcends politics and party affiliation.

Christians are supposed to love. Real Christians exemplify love without hypocrisy. Love is our defining characteristic. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Love changes our heart. Love builds community. Love fulfills the law. And the ironic thing here is that love for one’s neighbor is actually a requirement of God’s law. Paul quotes the same text, Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quotes in the parable of the Good Samaritan of Luke 10; and which Jesus quotes in Matthew 19:19 when he spoke to the rich young man about how to enter the kingdom of Heaven; and in Matthew 22:39 when a legal expert asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus mentions Leviticus 19:18 several times and expands the definition of neighbor. Paul only reiterates what Jesus has already said: that loving one’s neighbor fulfills the law.

If we take Jesus’ conversation with the legal expert in Matthew 22 as a guide, Jesus suggests that there are two parts to love: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. But, it’s not as though we have to love God first, and then love our neighbor. The nature of love for God is that it is inseparable from love for neighbor. That’s why I mentioned a while back that the love we show to others in our every day is worship of God. Christians are called to regard everyone as Christ: even people we don’t like; even those with whom we don’t want to associate. And that’s not an easy thing to hear, let alone do. I understand that, but the fact that it might be difficult for us isn’t an excuse to disregard it.

For Christians, God becomes the neighbor, and how we treat our neighbor reveals what we think of God who made that person in God’s own image. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus clearly states that how we treat others is how we are treating him. There is no way to make excuses or rationalize our way around this. For Jesus, the definition of our neighbor is not merely “your people,” as it might be interpreted in Leviticus 19:18, but every person.

In fact, if you keep reading in Leviticus 19, you eventually come to these words: “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34 CEB). Biblical law declares that we must love immigrants as ourselves and treat them as our own citizens.

Now, should the question come up about what it means that we are to love people, we might note that, in the five instances of the word love in this text, three of them are verbs. In the two instances where love is a noun, Paul still describes love’s action and purpose, “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the law” (Romans 13:10 CEB). Love is something we do. Love is how we act. Love is how we treat and regard other people. Paul insists that love is what we owe to everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

In fact, if love is the measure of the law, then the law must serve love. Law must submit to the demand that we love God and neighbor. It can’t be the other way around. Law must bow down to the demands of love and carry God’s desire for justice, which is what love works to accomplish. Love seeks liberty and justice for all. So, what would Jesus have us do when law and authorities violate the demands of love? Christians throughout the centuries have answered that question by working for justice in times when the law forgot what justice is. Some were arrested. Some were slandered. Some were martyred. But they did what love demanded of them.

The early Christians thought Jesus would return fairly soon. Almost two-thousand years later, we don’t feel quite the same urgency as Paul did, but the ethical implications for how Christians live and act toward other people haven’t changed. Our behavior matters, and we owe everyone love. Paul lists a few of the commandments for reference, and repeats the words of Leviticus that each of us must love our neighbors as our self.

The point of all this love stuff is to ready ourselves and, as much as we can, prepare the world for God’s kingdom. The church does have a mission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We can only accomplish this mission if we exhibit love. We can only succeed in the mission to which we have been called if we live out love to its fullest demands.

Love is the essence of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Love is the basis for the kind of transformation that takes place in people’s lives when they repent and believe in the good news of God’s salvation. But love requires a transformation and renewal of everything that we are. Genuine love involves and is measured by all that we say and do as individuals and as a community of faith. Love doesn’t take a day off. Love stays awake, clothes itself in Christ, and rolls up its sleeves to work, not for what we want, but for what others need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Genuine Christians | Proper 17

Romans 12:9-21

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic–be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you– bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (CEB)

Genuine Christians

When I was in Middle School, back in the late ‘80s, New Kids On the Block was on the radio, and Jams shorts were the choice of clothing for all the cool kids, both girls and boys. For those of you who don’t remember them, Jams are surfer-style shorts with colorful and flowery Hawaiian patterns. They’ve been around since the 1960s, but they were all the rage for a few years in the mid to late ‘80s.

Oh, there were knockoff Jams, too, but everyone knew if you had the genuine Jams or not. Fake Jams were not cool. Wearing knockoffs of the real thing meant you were just a poser, who was trying to look cool, but you clearly didn’t have the genuine Jams that actually made you look cool.

Alas! I have to admit that I was a poser. My mom bought me fake Jams. Real Jams were too expensive. Paying that much for shorts was “ridiculous,” if I recall her wording correctly. She clearly didn’t realize this was an investment in my Middle School social life which stayed rather stagnant, I’m sure, because I lacked genuine Jams. So, I did my best to act like I was “Hanging Tough,” as New Kids On the Block sang, while wearing my knockoff shorts into social ignominy.

In this text from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers some direction about love that is genuine. Paul’s words here actually look similar to his famous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (CEB).

Paul’s description in Romans differs somewhat in that he talks about the things that make Christians and the Christian Church different, even distinctive, from the broader culture in which we live. “Genuine love hates evil and clings to good,” is another way to translate verse 9 from Greek.

That word used for genuine in this text means without hypocrisy. Did you know that the word hypocrite comes from Greek, and it’s the word that was used for stage actors? It wasn’t an insult back then, it’s simply what they were called. Actors were hypocrites because they pretended to be something other than their true selves. They weren’t being genuine. They were posing as someone or something else, kind of like me with my knockoff Jams shorts. Genuine love—love that is without hypocrisy—is the thing that distinguishes us as Christians. Paul’s definition is expansive, and it’s not easy for any Christian to conform one’s life to it, let alone accept it on even a theoretical level. Yet, if we want to be the church as we ought, then we can’t ignore or gloss over what Paul tells us about genuine love.

It might help us to consider, for a moment, what the church is. Our English word, church, has a complicated and uncertain origin. The best possibility is that church is related to similar-sounding words in other languages (including Greek, Latin, Scotch, and Welsh) that all have the meaning, circle. Our word church doesn’t seem to be related at all to the Greek word found in the Bible, which is ʾεκκλησία (ecclesia). That word means a gathering of people, assembly, or congregation, and it’s a compound word that means summoned out of.

Are you still with me? I know, I’m a total nerd (which might have had more of an influence on my Middle School popularity than my lack of genuine Jams shorts). So, what we call the church is a group of people that has been called out of the world to be a different kind of community from the world. For Paul, the church’s distinctive characteristic is that we love God, and we love every person, even our enemies.

Paul bases all of this on our worship of God. In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “So then, I urge you, sisters and brothers, through the compassion of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship” (my translation). Worship is so much more than this public event we’re doing right now in this sanctuary. Yet, for some reason, we’ve created a dichotomy that separates worship on Sunday mornings from our every-day actions. For Christians, our worship of God does not end when we leave this room or this building. The entirety of our life is worship. Everything we think, do, and say, says something about us as a people who worship God. A tree, after all, is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20).

There’s a symbolic reason why acolytes typically carry the light from our worship candles out of the sanctuary after the benediction. The symbolism is that we are taking our worship out into the world. Our worship of God becomes our actions out there. The way we treat other people, how well we love and honor others, is our worship of God. Our actions toward others reflect either the hypocrisy or genuineness of our love for God and each other.

By describing genuine love, Paul essentially defines what the church’s relationship should be with everyone. The church might be an alternative community called out of the world, but we still relate to the world and its people. So, how do we live as an alternative community and how do we relate to the world? Paul tells us exactly how we can accomplish these things. The answer is genuine love. Love without hypocrisy or pretending.

If we wanted to, we could set up Paul’s words here as a church covenant and agree that this is how we’re going to deal with people. Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this? What if we really loved each other as a family? What if we loved each other so much that we all tried to outdo each other in showing honor? Who among us would earn their varsity letter in Honorableness? What if we gave each other the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions? What if we could still honor each other while holding vastly different opinions? What if I could wear my fake Jams and still be accepted as one of the cool kids? Showing honor to others comes from love that is without pretending. The thing is, if we don’t love each other as family and honor each other, then we can’t serve the Lord. Indeed, we aren’t serving the Lord because our actions toward each other are part of our worship.

What about enthusiasm and being on fire as we serve the Lord? Do we get excited about how the love we can offer to others can make the world a better place? Are we so enthusiastic in our service to God that people pause and say, Dang. You’re kind of zealous there, aren’t you? People can see that kind of enthusiasm, and it’s contagious!

What about rejoicing in the hope we have in Jesus Christ? Do we do that? Are we happy to call ourselves a Christian? When trouble comes around, as it inevitably does, do we stand firm in our faith or fall away? Is our love of God genuine or is it contingent on things going well for us? Do we pray as we ought, seeking that connection with God, those small moments of worship?

Right now, I’m in the middle of a little experiment. My phone has alarms set for 9:00, noon, 3:00, 6:00, and 9 p.m. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing so I can pray at those hours. That’s in addition to my morning prayers when I wake up, and my meal-time prayers, and my nightly prayers when I go to bed. Most of the time, my prayer at those hours is simply a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I pray for my family, or the Barnabas Ministry student I have, or a congregation member. Devoting ourselves to prayer is one of the ways we show our love of God to be genuine and without pretending. I invite you to try something like my prayer experiment, or find another way to devote yourself to prayer.

I’m sure that most of us give a portion of our finances and time to our church and other needs, but have we considered that our motivation for what we contribute to the church stems from our love for God? And, how we offer hospitality to others is important. Showing hospitality is more than an act of kindness or welcome. It can also mean seeking justice for others. Offering hospitality in the sense of charity offers people crumbs from our table. But hospitality in the sense of working for justice on behalf of others offers people a place at the table.

Then, somewhat reminiscent of the Beatitudes of Jesus, Paul reminds us of love’s reach. His instruction is not easy to hear, and it’s not easy to do. Nevertheless, these are the marks of Christian people. These are the characteristics of genuine love, love that doesn’t pretend: “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status.” [In other words, go hang out with the kid wearing fake Jams because that’s all his mother could afford] “Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (Romans 12:16-18 CEB).

Paul continues by quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he tells us to feed our enemies when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty. Although we would like it to be otherwise with our enemies, Paul is not literally telling us to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies. Too often, we come awfully close to that kind of interpretation and application. That’s what the world would have us do. In this case, the burning coals are the remorse of our enemies for their past mistreatment of us as we lovingly meet their needs. That remorse is the seed of repentance that can lead to their salvation.

The only appropriate way for Christians to act toward other people is with genuine love. None of us can fake our way out of it. None of us can raise valid exceptions that Paul, himself, wouldn’t shoot down. If we genuinely love God, our only option is genuine love. We don’t overcome evil with evil. We overcome evil with good. The way Christians defeat evil, injustice, oppression, and every other enemy we face is by loving it to death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Listen | Proper 16

Isaiah 51:1-6

1 Listen to me, you who look for righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many. 3 The LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins. He will make her desert like Eden and her wilderness like the LORD’s garden. Happiness and joy will be found in her– thanks and the sound of singing. 4 Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. 5 I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands hope for me; they wait for my judgment. 6 Look up to the heavens, and gaze at the earth beneath. The heavens will disappear like smoke, the earth will wear out like clothing, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But my salvation will endure forever, and my righteousness will be unbroken. (CEB)

Listen

“Listen!”

For children, this is probably the most often spoken to yet least heard word in the English language. When I cooked supper the other day, I called my family three times. Only one of them came to the table. So, the two of us sat together, prayed, and started eating. The rest of the family slowly wandered into the dining room, not because I had called them for supper, but randomly. And they were surprised that some of us were already eating. Two of them even asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” To which I replied, “I did. Three times. But you didn’t listen.” And they protested their innocence saying, “But I didn’t hear you!” To which I replied, “Because you weren’t listening.”

Sometimes we don’t listen because other things—whether they’re good things or bad things, positive things or negative things, peaceful things, or stressful things—have our attention. I get how it happens because I’m just as susceptible to not listening as anyone. If I’m engrossed in a book, for example, good luck getting my attention. You might have to slap it out of my hand to get me to look up. That’s my oldest child, too. One of those times that I called my family to the table for supper, I stood right in front of her and yelled. She had no idea I was there. Admittedly, the book she was reading is an awesome young adult fantasy full of assassins, war, betrayal, love, loss, and friendship.

But still, I called for supper. Despite the other things that might hold our attention over and against everything else, eating is important, too. You can’t live without food. You can’t grow without it.

In this text, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and calls people to listen. The difficulty is that the audience to whom the prophet speaks are living in the midst of other things that hold their attention. These are the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. They’ve experience hardship. In fact, they’ve been so traumatized by their military defeat, mistreatment by enemies, and forced exile to a foreign land that they’re likely deaf to everything but their own woundedness and pain.

All we have to do to get a glimpse of their context is to read Lamentations 5, “Our property has been turned over to strangers; our houses belong to foreigners. We have become orphans, having no father; our mothers are like widows. We drink our own water– but for a price; we gather our own wood– but pay for it.” “We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the desert heat. Our skin is as hot as an oven because of the burning heat of famine. Women have been raped in Zion, young women in Judah’s cities. Officials have been hung up by their hands; elders have been shown no respect” (Lamentations 5:2-4, 9-12 CEB). Sometimes our own reality is so painful and broken that it’s the only thing we can see.

In the midst of exile, some of these Jewish transplants were trying to live lives that were righteous. This remnant sought God even as they stood among the rubble of their lives wondering how they could possibly rebuild, replace, replant, or restore what they had lost. There were those who sought God even when it seemed that all of God’s promises to Israel had fallen apart. They still hoped in God. There were likely some skeptics, too, who had given up on God’s promises of blessing.

Isaiah tells the people, especially those who still hope, who still pursue righteousness, who still seek the Lord, to examine their past. “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many” (Isaiah 51:1-2 CEB). If you would recall, Sarah and Abraham were barren. Twice in the New Testament, Abraham is described as so old that he was, “as good as dead,” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12). It was God who made life spring from barrenness in the past, which promises the possibility that life can spring from the barrenness of exile.

Abraham also believed in God’s promises to him and God counted his belief as righteousness (James 2:23). The Hebrew word used here for righteousness has a collective sense of correct order. In the church, we sometimes like to theologize words like righteousness so much that we render the meaning incomprehensible. Righteousness is one of those “church” words that hardly anyone uses outside of church, which it why it doesn’t resonate well with most people. Yet, the word simply points to those who are doing what is correct, right, and honest. In spite of the fact that these people have been carried off, unwillingly, into exile, they are trying to do what is right, to find signs of life amid the barren.

The sounds of the Hebrew poetry in verse 1 even suggest something of this. The words for rock and hewn in Hebrew are צוּר (tsur) and ‎ חֻצַּבְתֶּ֔ם (chutsavtem). They have harsh-sounding consonants that might suggest something hard and barren. They sound quite different from the words for excavation, dug, and cistern, ‎ מַקֶּ֥בֶת בּ֖וֹר נֻקַּרְתֶּֽם (maqevet bor nuqartem), which have gentler, murmuring consonants with m, n, and r that might suggest something drenched or life-giving.

Look to Abraham and Sarah. The people are told to look to their past so they might be enabled to reimagine the future. A nation of many sprang from one barren couple. They had nothing, but God gave them everything. In the same way, God promises to comfort Zion. All the barren wastes and ruins of the land will become lush and verdant like the garden of Eden. From the people’s current state of despair and, perhaps, even a kind of death, will come happiness, joy, thanks, and the sound of singing.

But, honestly, when we’re experiencing difficult times in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a difficult move, serious illness, loss of a job, financial difficulty, or any other trauma, it’s easy to lose sight of the possibility for our strength being renewed and our life flourishing again. Experiences like these often lead to depression and self-doubt. In those times we often ask ourselves if God even cares that we’re going through the tough stuff life can throw at us. I know this from my own experiences. We’ve lost family members recently, we moved two years ago, we’ve had loved-ones go through serious illnesses, and we had a child with a persistent illness that was only recently resolved. And when we were in the middle of those things, it was easy to throw up our hands and ask, “What’s next? What more can the world throw at us?”

It’s easy to lose a clear sense of perspective and not even realize that clarity is missing. In times of deep distress, our priority, whether we realize it or not, becomes our own physical, emotional, or familial survival—even if we’re the caregiver for someone else. Every other matter tends to get drowned out by that one thing, which can leave us angry at everything, bitter toward God, and frustrated with others. It can get to the point that those sounds of our anguish are the only things we can hear, the trouble in front of us is all that we can see. There are people in our congregation and in our broader community who are experiencing times like this.

And that’s where these Jewish exiles were in their life when God called them to listen. It’s a place we can recognize because we’ve either been there ourselves, or we’ve walked that dark road with someone we love as they experienced it. God called them to listen, and God calls us to do the same. When all we can see is darkness and ruin, God calls to us and encourages us to listen. It’s not the end. The Lord will offer comfort. Life can flourish again.

But it will require us to listen. We can seek righteousness as much as we want, but how will we know what righteousness is unless we listen to the one who defines it? Finding righteousness means aligning ourselves with God. It means we allow God to chip away the hardness of our hearts so that we can love with hearts of tender flesh. It takes intentionality on our part, and an openness to the movement of God’s grace. We’re told to listen because God is teaching. God is speaking about matters of justice, but we must pay attention and listen. We’re all seeking righteousness or we wouldn’t be in church worshipping God today. But doing what’s right requires us to pay attention.

What does it mean to do what is right? How do we accomplish it for ourselves and for others? Life is meant to be lived for God and for others. How might we—each of us—minister to the people in the world around us, whether they’re a part of our congregation or not? Our church provides many opportunities for service. We have ministries for kids, youth, college students, homebound, hospitalized, we’ve partnered with an afterschool program called Thrive, we provide meals for families who’ve experienced sickness or surgery, Bridges of Hope, and Susanna Wesley Nursery School. There are lots of possibilities, and if none of them fit you, we can do something new and different.

Isaiah reminds us that nothing in this life in permanent. The prophet tells us that the heavens will disappear like smoke and the earth will wear out like clothing. The inhabitants of Earth are all going to die like gnats. Planet Earth’s time is limited by the lifespan of the Sun. Our star’s lifespan is limited by its fuel. The universe is expanding at an incredibly high speed. Some physicists theorize that the universe will keep expanding until it has, essentially, stretched itself into non-existence, with each particle moving so far apart from others that they stop interacting with other particles and lie still. We’re only here for a limited amount of time.

Isaiah doesn’t tell us about the end of creation to frighten us. What he does is set up a comparison between the finite and the infinite. Creation itself will come undone and pass away, but God’s salvation will last forever, and God’s righteousness will never be broken. God’s salvation will endure forever because God is infinite in every respect. God is righteous because God always does what is right. God will do what is right for us. We can trust that the Lord will set things right—even as we stand among whatever ruins might lie around us—because God’s righteousness never ends. God’s salvation will endure forever. And in all the places that were once barren, lifeless, and broken, God will make these things new so that we can share in the fullness of life. God made us to have life, and salvation is the continuation of that life even as everything else falls away.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher